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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Eberts: The New Awards for Fawning : Television: The film critic thumbs his nose at objectivity by hosting KABC's pre-Oscar schmoozefest--a job he seems born for.

March 23, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Roger and me. . . .

"Enjoy yourself."

You rubbed your eyes, blinked repeatedly and tried to focus. It was a Regis Philbin. It was a Tawny Little. It was a Chuck Henry. No, none of those. Incredibly, amazingly, supersonically, it was a Roger Ebert, planted like a palm beside a microphone by the red carpet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with his partner for the evening, Pam Thomson, fawning over preening celebrities as if joined at the brain with "Eyewitness News."

As if his entire career as a movie critic had been building toward this wondrous moment when he could shed all pretenses of professionalism and be affable and avuncular with everybody who was anybody.

As if he'd been born for it.

And just beyond, in the throng of onlookers, you could see the Hollywood wanna-bes side-by-side with the has-beens, those ghostly apparitions who might have earned a live shot in front of the camera in past years, but now were reduced to watching from the wings and hoping somehow to be noticed and summoned to appear before Ebert and the others.

Whoopi, shmoopi. Monday night's Academy Awards telecast on ABC was three sleepy hours of anti-climactic yawn compared with the dueling team coverages that preceded it.

Local news--that's where the action was. That's where the short, roundish, gray-topped, bespectacled half of Siskel & Ebert was. In his emerging role as emcee for the stars, Ebert was more entertaining even than Monday night's Revlon commercials in which Nancy Kerrigan performed like a cursor controlled by a joystick.

Once the exclusive stage of KABC-TV Channel 7, the grandly vacant, annual Oscar pre-show has evolved into an electrifying free-for-all among network stations in Los Angeles, with KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KCBS-TV Channel 2 pushing their way into the circle to make this an electrifying threesome.

And what team coverage it was. Channel 2 had David Sheehan (who used to do this for Channel 4) and hyper-kinetic Pat Lalama, who must have set a record for close-ups while trying to meld her face to the camera lens.

Channel 4 put its own unique stamp on the event, including having a chopper hover over milling celebrities at the Pavilion. It was a smart move, because you never know when a police chase can break out.

Behind the anchor desk were Colleen Williams and Chuck Henry (an alumnus of Channel 7's pre-Oscar show). While his colleagues were fawning in general, specialist Henry at one point expertly fawned (from afar) over female breasts.

On the scene for Channel 4 was Garrett Glaser, who broke the rumor that Macaulay Culkin was absent from the Oscars. As Channel 4 viewers gasped, Glaser reported that the excuse offered by little Macaulay's camp was that "another commitment" had prevailed, but Glaser skeptically noted the scuttlebutt that Macaulay was held out by his father, who was "displeased because of some copy written for him."

But it would take more than this shocking disclosure by Glaser to upstage his more seasoned colleague in the field, Kelly Lange. As adept at self-promotion as at fawning, it was Lange who commanded Janet Jackson: "You are live on the 5 o'clock news. Say hello to our viewers out there. There are millions of them."

And it was Channel 4 newcomer Kathy Vara who managed to corner "Entertainment Tonight" co-host Mary Hart and press her to reveal exclusively to Channel 4 (the station on which Hart's program airs) just how "Entertainment Tonight" would be covering the Oscars. After pausing a millisecond, Hart quickly capitulated.

But quickly, back to the studio for this self-fawning update from Henry: "We have cameras all over the place," he told viewers, "so you will not miss a thing by keeping it here."

Wrong. They would have missed Ebert.

He and Gene Siskel are such an institution, are in such demand, that they've become their own hot-ticket cottage industry, doing everything short of opening shopping centers. The gigs just pour in. But it's Ebert who has demonstrated that he's the new, unsurpassed meister of criticshtick . His work for Channel 7 Monday night, as a self-proclaimed arbiter for all seasons and reasons, affirmed that he has acquired a kind of celestial omniscience in the universe of moviedom, someone to be followed like a Bethlehem star.

Or to put it more crassly, the words self-parody come to mind.

Proving he knew how to play the game, Ebert was a natural, taking to vapid pre-Oscar schmooze like a critic to the plaudits "magical" or "fully realized" or "triumph of the human spirit" or "one of the year's 10 best."

When he interviewed Christian Slater while treating the woman at the actor's side as if she were invisible or a leper, you knew his future was in the stars.

Ebert to a star: "Enjoy yourself tonight, yeah, goodby." To another star: "You're more relaxed this year than last year." To another star: "A billion people will be listening to you tonight. Is that OK?"

And all of this without cue cards.

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